Yes, I said it: a Shaqtastic career. If Shaqtastic is not yet accepted as a legitimate word, it should be. Shaquille O’Neal recently announced his retirement after a brilliant career in which he won four NBA championships (including three in a row with the Los Angeles Lakers), an MVP award, and two NBA Finals MVPs.
At the time of his retirement, O’Neal’s marks included 28,596 points (fifth in NBA), 13,099 rebounds (12th in NBA) and 2,732 blocks (seventh in NBA). O’Neal finishes with career averages of 23.7 points per game, 10.9 rebounds per game and 2.3 blocks per game. O’Neal’s career .582 FG% is also second in NBA history. His 23 points per game are all the more impressive when you consider that he spent the final five seasons of his career failing to average 20 points per game.
O’Neal’s lack of 20-point games in the twilight of his career certainly was not due to any inability to play the game; he was merely deferring to other star players in order to try to stay fresh for the playoffs. Unfortunately for O’Neal, he suffered a rash of injuries in the final years of his career. He had stretches where he looked like the Shaq of old, but more often than not, his explosiveness was not there. Nevertheless, he was still an effective player when he was in the lineup.
When looking back at O’Neal’s career, many will choose to remember the big fellow as en explosive center who could impose his will in the paint. He indeed was such a player; however, I believe his true legacy was his effect on the game and on his teammates. When the Miami Heat acquired a past-his prime O’Neal, O’Neal’s impact was immediate. Christian Laettner, Dwyane Wade, Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem each set career-bests in FG% upon O’Neal’s arrival. Laettner retired after one season with O’Neal; Jones and Haslem never came close to matching their career-bests in FG% without O’Neal. Wade has since surpassed his numbers with O’Neal.
As a rookie before the Heat acquired O’Neal, Wade averaged 5.1 free throw attempts per game. Once O’Neal joined the Heat, Wade became more aggressive in attacking the basket. In his four seasons alongside O’Neal, Wade averaged 10.1 free throw attempts per game and won an NBA championship.
With Wade and O’Neal attacking the basket, the Heat drew many fouls and put opponents in foul trouble. This softened up the opposing defense and made it easier for Wade and others to score. O’Neal also had that effect in his prime with the Lakers as well. O’Neal’s presence in the paint and his ability to put the opposition in foul trouble enabled Kobe Bryant to take over late in games and shred a weakened defense.
O’Neal’s detractors will criticize his inability to hit free throws. So what? Babe Ruth could not bunt and Dan Marino could not scramble; nevertheless, they were dominating athletes in their respective sports. O’Neal’s ability to draw the double-team and hit the open man was his most valuable asset as a player. He was an underrated passer. He demanded touches, and rightfully so. O’Neal was an intelligent player who knew how to simplify the game and create the highest-percentage shot for himself and for his teammates.
O’Neal did not have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, Laettner’s jump shot, Hakeem Olajuwon’s agility, Bill Russell’s defensive prowess, the deft passing touch of Arvydas Sabonis or the scoring prowess of Wilt Chamberlain; nevertheless, O’Neal was skilled enough with his abilities in different areas of the game, intelligent enough to capitalize on those abilities, and unmatched in size and strength. Like Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan, O’Neal knew how to create the simplest shot for himself and his teammates. O’Neal retires with a career 26.43 Player Efficiency Rating, trailing only Michael Jordan (27.91) and LeBron James (26.91).
Imagine how easy it would have been for Jordan to slash to the basket with O’Neal putting the opposition in foul trouble, or how easy it would have been for Bird to hit a wide open three-point shot when O’Neal draws a double team! O’Neal’s freakish size and strength combined with his skills and his ability to make his teammates better make him the greatest center of all time in my eyes. The NBA will certainly miss him.